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Nuclear waste dump faces new roadblocks in Democratic Senate

WASHINGTON -- When Congress targeted Nevada as the nation's nuclear waste dumping ground, the state didn't have the political power to say no.

Twenty years later, the most ardent foe of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump is about to become Senate majority leader. Senator Harry Reid's new status, which gives him control over what legislation reaches the Senate floor, could deal a crippling blow to the already stumbling project.

Among the Nevada Democrat's first acts after this month's election was to convene a conference call with reporters in his state to declare Yucca Mountain "dead right now."

The dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas is planned as the first national repository for radioactive waste. It is supposed to hold 77,000 tons of the material -- from commercial power plant reactors and defense sites across the nation -- for thousands of years. About 50,000 tons of the waste is now stored in temporary sites at 65 power plants in 31 states. Reid would leave all of it in place.

Originally targeted to open in 1998, Yucca Mountain has been delayed by lawsuits, money shortfalls, and scientific controversies. The Energy Department's best-case opening date is now 2017.

The effort to create a national storage site has cost about $9 billion, $6.5 billion of which has been spent on Yucca. Four years ago, the Energy Department estimated the project would cost $58 billion to build and operate for the first 100 years. New cost projections are being worked up, and they are expected to total more than $70 billion.

The department proposed legislation this year meant to fix problems with the dump, which is a mounting liability to taxpayers because the government was contractually obligated to take nuclear waste off utilities' hands starting in 1998. Energy Department officials say at least one legislative change -- formally withdrawing land around the dump site -- is needed before construction can begin.

Reid, however, pledged after the Nov. 7 election that not only would no pro-Yucca Mountain bill reach the Senate floor under his leadership, funding for the project also would dry up quickly. Annual spending on the dump, which has ranged from $450 million to $550 million in recent years, "will be cut back significantly, " he vowed.

The senator said he could not single-handedly kill the dump outright, something that would require a vote of Congress and approval by President Bush. But "there's not much to kill," he added.

The project also will lose some of its most persistent supporters when Republicans relinquish control of Congress. Senator Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Energy Committee, has been a vocal advocate for years; he will be replaced by Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who supports Yucca Mountain but is viewed by Nevada officials as more open to their viewpoints.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and incoming chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is a vocal Yucca Mountain opponent. The committee has authority over some aspects of the project. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, worked unsuccessfully to corral opposition to the project in a crucial House vote four years ago, when she was minority whip.

Administration and industry officials insist that the changing of the guard on Capitol Hill will not be the death knell for the project.

Yucca Mountain also has garnered research grants for the University of Nevada, and even Reid aides say some spending should be maintained.

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